The push from Sony and Microsoft into the motion space could have significant influence over their next generation of hardware. The motion controller will inevitably provide a more accessible control mechanism, as it has with the Wii, and will help push more innovations in game design that have not really been possible with the aging joypad control method. However, I don’t think much focus has been given to the additional benefits we will get via camera interfaces. Technologies such as facial and speech recognition will not only be used to determine the emotion of the player and for issuing commands, but will also be enhanced to accurately map who is in the room. This will open up the possibility of the console becoming “one of the family”; something that has been demonstrated via the original Milo Natal demo.
Going back to the next generation of hardware, both MS and Sony obviously know what Nintendo did this generation, namely take the GameCube, improve the specs, add connectivity, motion control and rebrand it as the Wii. Given the potential innovation their new peripherals give, I believe that MS and Sony will follow suit and simply increase the clock speeds, memory resources and the number of CPU cores in a logical fashion, but keep the same basic architecture. These will be more upgraded 360s and PS3s rather than entirely new machines. This would help reduce the R&D costs associated with the development of a new console and help, Sony in particular, claw back some investment made in the current generation’s technologies by re-utilising it. This would be welcomed by third-party publishers, middleware providers and developers who would not need to invest heavily to transition to the new platforms but rather simply expand upon existing systems.
Talking of Nintendo, its future, on the other hand, is harder to envisage. Nintendo has openly decided to not go head-to-head with Sony and Microsoft and instead focus on making their products appeal as a ‘toy’. This has worked very well for them, first with the DS and then with the Wii. Both products faced some harsh criticism for being a ‘gimmick’ when initially announced and no-one, probably not even Nintendo, could have predicted how successful they would be. It will be interesting to see what they do next. The sales of the Wii seem to have peaked and are declining, which isn’t hard to believe given the size of its installed userbase; which I am sure Nintendo will want to captialise on for their next home console. However, the question of what will make current Wii owners upgrade to a new console is a hard one to answer. A recently released report has shown that the Wii is the least used home console. This leaves Nintendo with a tough challenge in answering the “I hardly use my Wii, in fact I haven’t used it that much at all. Why would I purchase a Wii 2 when I have not gotten value for money from my Wii?”
So, the ‘big three’ will be looking at developing another console within the next 2-3 years. What about newcomers trying to muscle in on the action? 2009 saw the rise of so called ‘Cloud gaming companies’, with OnLive and Gaikai being the most prominent. The fundamental premise for their approach is that you will not need a powerful console as all the processing power within one of their server farms. This leads to the consumer spending substantially less on a piece of hardware for their home as it has dramatically less work to do. Sure the concept is a very good one, from a consumer point of view. However, the main issue regarding this approach is latency; i.e. how quickly will the players’ screens show the effect of their inputs. There has been much debate via online forums on this point both for and against its validity. The latency figures have been released that are VERY low, which I can only assume pertains to the time that the server takes to process any received inputs from their clients. When you add in the latency of sending the player commands to the server farm and, more detrimentally, the time it will take to compress then send the updated image back to the client will it be possible to maintain a high quality level. Does this mean that there will need to be a server farm somewhat local to the clients? If so, what does this mean for online gaming? I guess that client inputs could be sent to multiple server farms with each online sending the results to locally connected clients? What does this mean for gaming resolutions or framerates? If there is one thing that core gamers hate it is inconsistent framerate and low resolutions. Will it be able to maintain HD resolutions, i.e. 720P 30FPS title, not to mention 1080P 60FPS? There is still a lot of scepticism and questioning surrounding the validity of ‘Cloud Gaming’ but if they get it working to an acceptable level and sort out the business model then it could spell trouble from the traditional console manufacturers.
There will no doubt be other newcomers in the next decade; will Apple look at combining its App Store and Apple TV setup to develop a home console? If there is any company that has the finances to back an entry into the home gaming market it is certainly Apple. The iPhone has been a phenomenal success, has allowed Apple the time to develop its App Store, and has also given a large number of developers experience of developing for their platform using the now mature SDK. This platform could easily be used as the basis of a home-based console, so I would be more surprised if they did NOT develop some kind of overt home gaming hardware.
From one type of up-and-coming digital distribution to another that is more established. It seems today that everybody is building their own App Store to help get straight to the consumer, cut out retail and retain a larger piece of the revenue pie. This includes Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Blackberry, Nokia, Intel, Valve’s Steam platform and I dare say a few more. What does this actually mean for the future of the retail business? To answer this, we have to look at where the future of gaming will lie. It looks like there is a polarisation in the size of products available both in terms of cost to the consumer and in their respective development budgets. You can pick up smaller, cheaper to develop titles from the App Stores at an impulse buy price. As these titles have been cheaper to produce they do not need to sell as many titles to break even. Moreover, an independent developer could make a tidy profit going down the bite sized gaming route due to the lower risk and quicker turn around of product. On the other hand, the hardware manufacturers will always be looking to show off their consoles and will therefore commission titles that try and push the hardware to the limit. Outside of the first party published titles, there are several titles published across platform by third parties that are pushing for ’cinematic’ experiences. These high-asset, high-budget titles generally result in a longer, more expensive development cycle, with the end product relying on a large amount of data. Given the generally prohibitively large downloads that would be required to distribute such games, boxed product on high-density media is not going to be going away any time soon. Having said that, there are an increasing number of people that are opting to purchase titles and hardware via online stores or supermarkets, at a price lower than what the High Street can offer; so the question should not be about whether we need retail but rather; “do we still need the high street?” Traditional High Street retail is going to face an increasingly difficult time in the coming decade. They will have to rethink their strategies or face bankruptcy.
Bruce McNeish, CTO, Cohort Studios
Quotes from this article can be found in a recent Tech Radar story.